Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Acceptable In The 800s

Just in case you don't get the reference:

Anyway, as you probably know I'm going to do NaNoWriMo in a few days and so will probably take a break from blogging for the whole of November.  NaNoWriMo is an annual event where people get together online and in reality to make a concerted effort to write a 50000-word novel.  Since I like round numbers, I'm personally aiming at 51840 - 50000 words gets you 1666 words a day which sounds a bit silly to me although of course one could do more than the requisite number, so I am.

It's easy to write tens of zagiers of words for me, and in fact for most people.  For instance, you could just write "and" fifty thousand times.  You could also take the negative space approach adopted by sculptors who simply chip away at a block of stone until everything which isn't their statue is gone.  You could do this by taking a document with fifty thousand random words and see what they suggest, then replace the ones which stop it making sense.  However, this would probably take longer than two and a half dozen of your Earth days, so maybe not.

The idea behind my novel, whose title is 'Unspeakable', is that the English language has died out and not only is it forgotten, but also taboo to find out why.  If someone asks, the question is considered impolite, like a small child innocently asking "where do babies come from?" in the middle of a genteel meal with one's in-laws.  This ends up bugging my central character Su so much that she goes on a quest to find out, and hopes in fact not only to find out the answer but to learn to speak English.

I've experimented with various reasons why English might become extinct, and there are naturally many very dominant languages which are now extinct such as Latin and Ancient Egyptian.  Latin left descendants and Ancient Egyptian gave rise to Coptic, which is still known as a liturgical language among one sect of Christianity.  Other languages are almost completely gone without trace such as Etruscan, which has left us a couple of words such as "element" and "atrium", and Pictish, which has utterly vanished apart from a few dubious inscriptions which may or may not be examples.  I want to make English thoroughly dead, with hardly any trace at all apart from a handful of scattered words in the languages which replace it.  This is very hard to do plausibly because of the phenomenal current success of the language, making it difficult to imagine it ever happening while there are still human beings about.

I'm now going to introduce a minor spoiler.  One of the things Su does is consider possible hypotheses about what happened, and somehow I have to make that interesting rather than a massive Rosetta Stone-type slab of exposition.  Speaking of which, here's a gratuitous picture of a bit of said document:

One of the hypotheses is that so many words and even grammatical forms in the English language became unacceptable that it was no longer considered polite to speak it, and it became unwieldy to circumlocute the expressions considered unacceptable.  That's one hypothesis among several - I'll leave it to you to find out if it turns out to be true when you read the book, which of course you will won't you?

Taboo words are interesting in various ways.  If someone has a stroke, they may lose the ability to converse normally without losing the ability to swear, because swearwords are governed by a different part of the brain than the rest of language.    Some people with Tourette's Syndrome swear involuntarily (and of course other people with it have no such symptom or they may simply say something like "chicken" or "biscuit" a lot), suggesting there is a place in the brain that does this, and I used to know someone who had suffered a stroke and used to swear a lot at her frustration at being unable to speak fluently.  It's now apparently established that the limbic system is more responsible for cursing than the temporal lobe in the cerebral cortex, which seems to be implicated in the use of language otherwise.

They also change in their degree of taboo relative to each other.  I'm not about to plonk a load of taboo words in front of you as examples, but I am going to give one instance because it's particularly striking.  Therefore, please forgive me if this offends you but I am about to upload an image of the F-word from 1528.  Here it is:

The odd thing about this, which is written in a copy of Cicero's De Officiis by a presumably rather irate scribe, is not so much the use of the word itself as what immediately preceded it, "O d".  That d-word, which to me looks like the scribe tried to erase it after he wrote it, as if having second thoughts, was presumably going to be "damned".  It seems that he was about to use the d-word, then decided it was too strong and chose the milder f-word.  I can gaily type the word "damned" in this without realistic fears of anyone reading this today but not the f-word.  They appear to have swapped places in offensiveness.

It can therefore be assumed that this word:

(excuse my runes) was at some point not as taboo as it is now, although even now its offensiveness may be declining towards its previous level, though "damned" is of course just sitting there as practically completely inoffensive.

Nonetheless I do in fact find this word offensive personally.  One of the reasons for this is that although this is frequently subverted, traditionally it's a verb which can only be used with a masculine subject and a feminine object:  "the man f----ed the woman", and to me, notwithstanding all my hangups, that brings it closer in sense to the verb "rape" than simply "have sex with" or "make love with", and to me it is "with" rather than "to" for the same reasons.  Consequently, I consider it sexist.  It implies that men always take the active role in sex and women the passive.  Having said that, I do find it acceptable for it to be used as an intransitive verb, i.e. a verb with no object such as "rise" in "the sun rose" or "grow" as in "the tree grew", with a plural, or at least dual, subject.  Hence the couple can go off into the bushes and f---, we can go upstairs and f--- and so forth.  So ideally, the f-word or an equivalent would be fine if it was an intransitive verb with a dual or plural subject, grammatically speaking.  Other inflections and usages would ideally sound wrong.

I would also hope that as time goes by, although the f-word might become acceptable, care might initially be taken to avoid sticking an S on the end.  This would be an example of grammar becoming, as it were, "right on" or "politically correct".  Other examples, perhaps more extreme for now, might be to avoid saying "my girlfriend", as Ben Elton once observed, because she's not someone's property although strictly speaking that's an alienable use of the genitive.  Then we get to the point where seeing as all property is theft, possibly even including one's own thoughts and feelings because of the death of the author, the use of any possessive pronouns becomes equally taboo, such as "my", "her" and "their".  By extension, the greengrocer apostrophe issue becomes redundant as there will be no more possessives and then even the word "of" would become unacceptable.  Then there's the use of gender and gendered terms - it's not a labium or a scrotum any more but "a pair of labioscrota" or something.  With this onslaught, English gets harder and harder to use, requiring hesitant and roundabout ways of saying things, until in the end nobody has enough confidence to use it at all and it dies.

Interestingly, Celtic languages do tend to avoid using the possessive in this way, even inalienably, so they will say "the hair on him" rather than "his hair", and they have also become very circumlocutory.  Thus if you wanted to speak in a way which avoided this particular form of political incorrectness, you could try speaking a Celtic language.

Only read on if you don't mind a spoiler of sorts.


This is not what I'm planning to do at all with 'Unspeakable'.  I want Su to consider this hypothesis and reject it, so it is a plot point but not where I'm actually going.  Nonetheless, they do end up speaking a Celtic language.

Anyway, eight days to go.  I can't wait!